I grew up in the Washington DC suburbs in a better era of American politics. My father, a talented MIT-trained chemical engineer, was attracted to environmental policy analysis and spent most of his career helping Congress think well about energy and ecology through his work at the Congressional Research Service. Dad was on hand during the writing of the first great round of environmental policy related to clean air, water, and soil. He was very proud of his contribution to that intelligent legislation.
It almost seems like a dream now when I remember what he told me about the policymaking process in Washington. He said that legislators and their staff all had to consider the relevant facts, values, and interests. Facts are those data points that exist in reality that must be taken seriously by everyone when making policy. Data points are such things as the level of toxins in our drinking water, the mix of fuel sources that we consume in our country, the level of CO2 in the air, that kind of thing. A key role of the CRS was to provide state of the art rendering of such facts to congressional staffers and Members.
Values are the moral principles that drive the direction of policymaking. These principles could include such things as environmental sustainability, energy independence, or special attention to the needs of the poor. Dad emphasized that everyone brings values into the policymaking process, and that it is best to be transparent about what those values are during democratic deliberations.
Interests relate to the economic or other self-interest of the relevant affected parties in a policy issue. So Dad told me that you could count on oil companies to act in their economic self-interest, but you could also count on environmental groups to do the same. He said that when assessing the factual and values claims of participants in policy disputes, one must always look to their interests to see how that might be affecting their claims. This did not mean that a policy analyst did not read reports from the Sierra Club or Exxon, but that one began reading them with full awareness of their likely biases.
I remember being somewhat dazzled by the life of a Member of Congress, whom I imagined reading these learned CRS reports put together by my father and others, assessing the facts, reflecting on values, and attempting to put the interests of the public and the nation ahead of more narrow interests. And I remember being impressed by my father telling me about the rigorous process of debate and compromise, in which Members fought hard for their views, on one issue aligning with a certain set of colleagues and on another opposing them vigorously.
Ok, I was 10, and now I'm 50. I'm not supposed to be dazzled by Washington anymore.
But I think there is reason for very great concern. And that concern will not end on Election Day.
1. I am deeply concerned about the near disappearance of shared facts. The first presidential debate, and undoubtedly all the future debates, were/will be filled with disputes over supposed facts. I fear that the lack of a shared reality in our public life is increasing cynicism about our political process. I am a pretty well-schooled policy wonk, but it took me days to sift through blow-by-blow fact checking after the first presidential debate.
2. I am deeply concerned that we often cannot get straight talk from the candidates about what they value. Mainly we hear attacks from opponents projecting such values onto their adversaries. Thus Barack Obama tells us that Mitt Romney values the wealthy and wants to protect their privileges. Romney in turn tells us that Obama values big government and wants to protect its excessive power. While I believe these discussions are perhaps a bit more illuminating than our interminable fact-throwing, greater honesty from each candidate about what they truly value would be helpful.
3. I am deeply concerned that we have been trained to reduce citizenship to the advance of self-interest or corporate interests. I participated in an election forum recently in which the speaker essentially counseled a vote for Obama because his health care plan meant more jobs for people of the speaker's particular health profession. Meanwhile the Romney/Ryan campaign has reprised the Reagan question of whether we are better off than four years ago. And the Citizens United decision unleashes corporate self-interest on an even more massive scale into the American political process.
4. And of course, the policymaking process involving shifting coalitions of lawmakers pragmatically acting on a case by case basis to advance the national interest seems like a scene from an old black-and-white movie. Ideological polarization has made "law-making" very rare indeed, and coalitions stay frozen in amber across left-right lines, with occasional rare exceptions.
I hope that our Alternative Political Conversation has offered hope of better possibilities for our public life: fact claims that stand up to objective tests, clear statements of values rooted in well-argued Christian worldviews, and a vision of the national (and global, and even divine) interest that extends beyond tawdry bottom-line thinking. I certainly sense in every setting that I am involved in a deep, groaning impatience with politics as it is, and a hunger for something better--something more like this "alternative political conversation."
I will not advise how to vote. I imagine most of our readers long ago decided what they would do. I do know that when I look at the policy positions of each candidate, and party, I cannot find anything that looks like a coherent Christian public vision. That is not the kind of world we live in, or the kind of country we are. On November 6, each of us will be forced to make a "least bad" choice and move ahead afterwards, trying to be the best Christian citizens we can be. It is good to know that God is still sovereign, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, and that one day Christ will return.